Archive for November, 2009

My Kingdom for a Left Turn

November 12, 2009

Last month, on October 24th, I started going around and around Crissy Field in San Francisco. Over 60 other people and I kept this up for 24 hours, both walking and running. Why? I’m an ultra marathoner. This run was organized by Pacific Coast Trail Runs (PCTR). They offered both a 12- and 24-hour version, and I was signed up for the latter. I had done the 12 hour last year, and also, this was the last race in PCTR’s Grand Prix series, giving me a chance to move up a bit in the points for my age group. And I was hoping to go further than I had ever gone before: 100 miles.

The night before, my wife Connie and I checked into a room up in the City, which, combined with the relatively late 9:00am start time, meant that I was able to sleep in. This is important when you want to stay awake for 24 hours. I got to the start around 8:00am, got a spot for my stuff next to the course, got checked in, and waited for the start. The weather was cool, which is the way I like it. But my left leg (possibly hamstring) had been a little sore for several weeks. I thought it might be OK, since I did reasonably well at the Skyline Ridge 50K three weeks earlier. Still, it was on my mind.

Crissy Field is a flat course. The first straightaway is asphalt, and the rest is sandy. It’s 1.061 miles around and has four right turns. It also has lots of visitors and dog walkers. We started right on time at 9:00am, and I ran the first couple of loops (eight right turns). After that I started walking the paved section, which was about 0.4 miles of the loop. I was walking it fast (12 to 14 minutes per mile according to my GPS), and running the rest of the loop. Over time I increased the percentage of the loop that I walked, but continued to make good time. In the afternoon it got slightly warm for a bit, especially on the downwind side of the loop, but in general the weather was great, and the hours and right turns slipped by.

I don’t remember exactly when I started to realize that my left foot and ankle were hurting, but I know it was well before it got dark, so it must have been sometime in the afternoon (maybe after around 34 miles and 128 right turns). Thinking back on it, my walking stride might have been a little too long. And of course the fact that it showed up on my left side is likely related to the left leg issue I had beforehand. Strangely, it actually felt slightly better during the brief times when I managed to run, and that made me think it was OK to keep going.

It got dark a bit before 7:00pm. I got a second wind and ran a bit more of the time over the next two or three hours. At the 12-hour point I had completed 51 laps (54.1 miles and 204 right turns), which was 3 laps more than my total from the previous year, when I did the 12-hour run. This despite knowing I was only half done and also despite the pain. I was happy about that and still thought I had a shot at 100 miles. That lasted until around midnight, when I realized that the pain was slowly getting worse. I invoked my priorities: having fun was more important than my results. So I slowed down. Instead of around 15 or 16 minutes per loop, it became closer to 20.

During the night I also branched out a bit in my eating. Instead of limiting myself almost entirely to the boiled potatoes, I had small slices of cheese pizza on three occasions. Actually, before that I also ate some avocado, which tasted really good. It doesn’t seem like something that’s mostly fat (good fat, but not much carbohydrate) would work for fuel, but it sure didn’t seem to hurt.

My other source of calories was sports drink, though I alternated between that and straight water, with one handheld water bottle dedicated to each (but only carrying one or the other). That worked much better than trying to completely finish the sports drink at the end of a loop so that I could use one bottle for both. It also let me use my crew to refill it, saving me a little time.

My crew was Connie, who arrived in the late morning Saturday and was there most of the time during the day and again the next morning, and John Nadler (from my men’s team, which is part of the South Bay Nation of Men) for the night. A race like this, with an aid station and access to your own stuff every mile, can be done without a crew, but it can save a little time at each stop, and multiplied by 80+ times, that’s big. It’s also motivating to have someone who’s out there for you. When I briefly mentioned the possibility of quitting to Connie, I was happy that she immediately asked about the reasons rather than just accepting the idea—I’ve heard that it’s natural for crew members, especially family, to let runners give up rather than encouraging them to keep going through pain. John also walked a few individual loops with me during the night, which distracted me when I needed it.

That reminds me that I did listen to my iPod for several hours on Saturday, during the day. I never use it on trail runs, but for events like this it is helpful. Specifically I caught up on podcasts, both running and non-running related. One of the more surreal points came when I paused the Running Stupid podcast to talk to Coach Ken, who was also doing the 24-hour event. He hosts that podcast. One moment I was listening to him recorded, and the next moment in real life.

Back to the race. During the night I noticed that many people were taking breaks, and I wondered if that would help. I didn’t want to take a long one, so when I sat down for the first time in over 18 hours (78.5 miles and 296 right turns) at around 3:30am, I kept track of the time. About seven minutes later I stood up and started hobbling around the loop again. While I was back up to my previous slow speed fairly soon, the break made my muscles stiffen up and had clearly not been worth the time. Live and learn.

My speed continued to decrease a bit, so I was mostly taking over 20 minutes per loop. In my head I was thinking it was only two loops per hour, though even the loop that included the break wasn’t quite that slow. But as it started to get light again Sunday morning I estimated (using that two-loops-per-hour figure) that I could finish 87 loops, and kept moving to make that happen.

Connie showed up again a bit before 8:00am thinking she’d be there for my last three loops. Instead, she was just in time to walk that final 87th loop with me. When we finished I saw that I had plenty of time for another loop. But no. Since I had planned on that being my last one, it looked like my age group finish ranking was safe, and my ankle really hurt, my motivation evaporated and I stopped and sat down. After 92.3 miles. And 348 right turns.

I took off my left shoe and John got a bag of ice to put on my ankle. After a while my body temperature crashed, so my crew covered me with a blanket and got me some chicken soup. That would have been much uglier if I hadn’t had a crew. Thanks!

Connie drove us home, and of course I kept falling asleep on the way. Once home I finally took off my right shoe and both socks. As I took off the right sock I saw a good sized blister on the bottom of the heel, which is where I got one at the 12 hour last year. But then I suddenly noticed that I had a big, juicy blood blister on one toe. And that was my good foot! Needless to say, I didn’t know which side to limp on and didn’t walk very well for a few days. My ankle is still slightly swollen as I write this, 18 days later. But it was worth it.

The result? It wasn’t quite what I had hoped for, but I did manage 20th overall out of 63, and well enough in my age group (6th out of 11 in perhaps the toughest group) to move up in the Grand Prix points. I also went my second longest distance on foot, ever.

I’m clearly not one of the faster people (the winner covered 140.1 miles, with second place going to a 45-year-old woman at 134.7 miles). But this event reminds me that I do have some advantages for long events:

  • I walk fast. More than once I walked past people who were running more slowly than I was walking.
  • My stomach is pretty bulletproof. Many people have trouble taking in calories during an event like this, but other than slowing down while actually eating pizza, I was fine.
  • I don’t need too much sleep. I got slightly more tired this time than I did at the 100 miler in August, which was almost 28 hours, but I wasn’t even slightly tempted to take a nap, and I didn’t use any caffeine except for a couple of Diet Cokes that Connie picked up for me. I don’t know how I will do at even longer events, but 24 to 30 hours seems easy sleepwise. Seeing some others sleeping in the middle of the night made it clear that being able to keep moving all night is a big plus.
  • I can push through some pain if I want to.

With my injured ankle, it’s going to be a while longer before I’m running again. My next scheduled race (the Muir Beach 50K on November 14th) has become an opportunity to try volunteering at aid stations. But this race was my primary one for the Fall, and I’m happy with the outcome.

You can see a few pictures here. Be warned that they include a couple of photos of the blood blister.

For the record, here are all of my lap times:

Lap Lap Time End Time Lap Lap Time End Time
0 N/A 09:00:01 44 14:21 19:09:37
1 10:15 09:10:16 45 13:55 19:23:32
2 10:15 09:20:31 46 14:33 19:38:06
3 11:31 09:32:03 47 15:03 19:53:09
4 11:34 09:43:37 48 15:16 20:08:25
5 11:52 09:55:29 49 15:02 20:23:27
6 11:53 10:07:22 50 14:36 20:38:02
7 11:27 10:18:49 51 14:56 20:52:58
8 11:52 10:30:41 52 15:26 21:08:24
9 12:07 10:42:48 53 14:42 21:23:06
10 11:58 10:54:46 54 14:51 21:37:57
11 11:57 11:06:43 55 16:28 21:54:25
12 11:45 11:18:28 56 15:56 22:10:21
13 12:31 11:31:00 57 17:16 22:27:37
14 12:46 11:43:46 58 15:21 22:42:58
15 12:57 11:56:43 59 15:53 22:58:51
16 14:24 12:11:07 60 16:39 23:15:30
17 13:24 12:24:31 61 15:15 23:30:45
18 13:36 12:38:08 62 16:36 23:47:21
19 13:55 12:52:02 63 17:19 00:04:40
20 14:35 13:06:37 64 17:29 00:22:09
21 14:50 13:21:27 65 18:38 00:40:47
22 14:33 13:36:00 66 18:58 00:59:46
23 15:01 13:51:01 67 18:12 01:17:58
24 15:10 14:06:11 68 19:03 01:37:01
25 15:06 14:21:16 69 17:41 01:54:42
26 15:02 14:36:18 70 18:04 02:12:45
27 14:50 14:51:08 71 18:31 02:31:16
28 14:58 15:06:06 72 17:34 02:48:51
29 14:43 15:20:49 73 18:27 03:07:18
30 14:48 15:35:37 74 19:54 03:27:12
31 14:49 15:50:26 75 27:11 03:54:23
32 14:38 16:05:04 76 19:36 04:13:59
33 15:38 16:20:42 77 22:31 04:36:30
34 16:20 16:37:02 78 24:22 05:00:53
35 14:47 16:51:48 79 25:15 05:26:08
36 15:11 17:07:00 80 23:31 05:49:39
37 15:26 17:22:26 81 23:19 06:12:57
38 15:18 17:37:44 82 22:13 06:35:10
39 15:48 17:53:32 83 20:46 06:55:57
40 15:36 18:09:08 84 20:42 07:16:39
41 15:27 18:24:35 85 19:22 07:36:01
42 16:55 18:41:30 86 23:30 07:59:31
43 13:46 18:55:16 87 21:51 08:21:21

And yes, I was really, really tired of right turns by the end.